Lab Module - 2007 High School

On May 3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th three local high schools hosted guest presenter Dr. Susan McCouch, from Cornell University. McCouch is a world-renowned rice researcher and pioneer in creating the rice genome map. Biology teachers from Homer, Groton and Cortland have worked with the McCouch RiceLab group from Cornell for the past few years to bring equipment, resources and experienced researchers into the classroom to benefit their students taking the Living Environment course. Students participated in two laboratory exercises - DNA extraction and gel electrophoresis that helped them to understand the biological concepts behind modern DNA testing procedures.

This was the 5th year these rice labs have been presented at Homer and Groton, and the 4th year for Cortland. The teachers who took advantage of this opportunity include Paula Jones, Melissa Schug, Kathy Pratt and Tom George from Homer; Fred Ott and David Syracuse from Groton; and Karen Krichbaum-Stenger from Cortland. This project was initiated by McCouch and Jones 5 years ago when Jones was teaching at Groton. The two women applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to purchase the equipment and materials. Jones appreciates that students get that opportunity to do college level activities while gaining insight into future roles that science plays in the world.

Krichbaum-Stenger is a strong supporter of the hands-on laboratory opportunity for her biology students. Traditionally the concepts of genomic DNA is taught in abstract form through discussion and reading. This lab allows the students to apply it in real life, to understand the process, and to work with tools that are otherwise unavailable to them. It also allows them to interact with professionals in the field - to ask them about their experiences and get answers to questions they have about working in a lab.

McCouch captivated students as she set the background for the lab work. She told of how rice and rice genomics are crucial to addressing the challenges facing the world today. Although agricultural grain production has more than tripled since 1945, the world population growth has outgrown grain production. And many of the world's poorest people consume the less nutritional white rice because it uses less fuel and has better storage characteristics in hot moist climates. With over 250,000 varieties of rice available to researchers, the genomic diversity from these varieties can be used to naturally breed and improve crops for production in many environments. For example, in Africa flooded rice fields would harbor diseases such as malaria, which is the #1 killer of children under the age of 5, so current work is on developing better varieties for the production needs of Africa. Improvements in rice can also direct improvements in other cereal crops, all with larger genomes than rice. Globally three grains, - rice, maize and wheat - are the staples for human nutrition. Jones commented about feedback from the students on the presentation. They are always amazed by her (McCouch's) presentation, because they had not previously been forced to see food and water as a privilege. As a first-timer to the program Syracuse was impressed to understand the importance of rice to the world's welfare.

The students learned about techniques that molecular biologists and geneticists use in their labs everyday to try to solve some of the problems that the world is facing. This challenge was accepted by grinning students, who froze and crushed plant leaves in liquid nitrogen and used finely calibrated pipettes to measure DNA into the gel plates. Their interest was obvious as they asked questions about how genomics and biotechnology affect them. A student from Homer stated, That was cool, everything we did in lab I saw on CSI (a television drama) last week. Another student asked about the difference between biotechnology and bioengineering. A ninth grader from Cortland said, I'm going to go home and tell my father about this, and he isn't going to believe it!" Students from Groton also had the option to grow a rice plant and to view a rice flower under a microscope.

Ott, a teacher from Groton, believes that presenters are important to keep the students interest. His comment, "There are so many job opportunities in science." When you tell kids about them they don't get it, but when they see it they get excited, proved true as many students remarked that grinding rice leaves and using pipettes was fun, and they were interested in doing further laboratory work. Syracuse had his students participate in the event because this class puts it all together taking the different concepts and units that we teach and putting them into one lab.

Although the original grant has expired, McCouch and her laboratory staff plan on continuing to offer this lab experience to the local schools, and are looking forward to new students and new experiences next year.